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Calluses and Carabiners

How queer women have rocked the climbing world

If you’re a queer woman who’s been living in Montreal for a while, you probably know the spots. Walk into Champs on a Monday, L’Escogriffe on a Friday, or Aréna Saint-Louis on the day of a roller derby, and you’re sure to encounter an impressive display of mullets, nose rings, denim vests, and insect tattoos. There’s another place where, in recent years, Montreal’s queer women have been gathering in strength: the climbing gym.

Some of the most popular climbing gyms in Montreal include: Café Bloc, in Ville-Marie; Shakti Rock Gym, in the Mile End; Allez-Up, with locations in the Mile End, Pointe-Saint-Charles, and Verdun; and Bloc Shop, with locations in Chabanel, Hochelaga, and Mile-Ex. Almost all of Montreal’s climbing gyms are lined with bouldering walls, which don’t require the use of a harness or ropes, but some also offer top rope climbing. The gyms welcome new and experienced climbers, offering day-long or week-long passes as well as monthly memberships.

An increased interest in climbing and a growing demand for climbing gyms are not phenomena unique to Montreal. The sport has been gaining in popularity since the mid-2010s, and its introduction as an Olympic sport in the 2020 Tokyo Games has only accelerated the trend. Montreal is also not the only city where queer climbers are bonding over their love of coloured plastic rocks. The emergence of organizations and community groups like Van Queer Climbers (Vancouver, BC), Queer Climbers London (London, UK), and ClimbingQTs (Australia) attest to the prevalence of queer climbing across the world.

In an article on “How climbing became a favorite hobby among queer women in China,” Nathan Wei suggests that the sport’s openness and relative newness have encouraged its popularity among WLW. A bisexual woman referred to by the pseudonym HS told Wei that “climbing is more gender-friendly than many other sports,” while another woman climber remarked that the community “has not been dominated by men yet.”

Toronto-based climber Jill Stephenson, who has been climbing recreationally for about two years, echoed these sentiments in an interview with the Daily. Not only is there “less of an established gender hierarchy” in climbing, she said, but it is also a “highly social sport” with a “very supportive community.”

Most climbers will “gladly accept new climbers into their spaces regardless of ability, skill level, gender, or sexual orientation,” Stephenson added.

Isabelle Mills, a Concordia University student who boulders at Café Bloc, noted that the looser restrictions at climbing gyms compared to other gyms and sports facilities can help (queer) women to feel more comfortable there. The lack of a dress code – not to mention the expectation that women wear form-fitting clothing to accentuate their breasts and butts for the viewing pleasure of male gym-goers – is especially freeing: “there’s no idea of what you’re supposed to look like as a climber,” Mills said.

Although outdoor climbing trips and equipment can be expensive, indoor climbing tends not to be as financially prohibitive as other sports. Simon Rouillard, one of the co-founders of Queer Bloc, a community group that organizes monthly climbing events for Montreal’s LGBTQ+ community, highlighted the accessibility of climbing in an interview with the Daily: all you need is “yourself, some shoes, and some chalk,” he said. “You don’t need that much more equipment, nor does it have to be fancy.”

Another reason climbing gyms have become such magnets for queer people, Rouillard says, is that climbing “allows us to become one with our bodies.” While he acknowledges that body awareness and body image are things we all have to deal with, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, queer folks “have had to confront and be aware of our bodies from an early age. We’ve had to be accepting of them.”

Climbing is unique among sports in that success does not depend on a particular body type. While many “problems,” or bouldering routes, may seem to favour taller climbers, there’s always more than one way to get to the top of a wall, and shorter climbers will quickly develop a knack for troubleshooting their way from rock to rock. It’s not all about brute strength, either: flexibility, stamina, and mental reasoning (there’s a reason they’re called “problems”!) are equally integral to the art of climbing.

“Anybody and any type of body can be a good climber,” Rouillard told the Daily.

The climbing communities of Montreal and other places have certainly done a lot of work to create inclusive and supportive environments, but there is still more to be done to make queer people – and others traditionally underrepresented in sport – feel welcome on the wall. Stephenson noted that “even though the climbing community is safe and supportive, it can be intimidating to enter a new space and engage with new groups.”

Rouillard cites the fear of intimidation and bullying, body image issues, and lack of confidence as factors that may deter queer people from climbing and other sports. “We have to remember that for a lot of our LGBTQIA+ community, sports haven’t always been available to us,” they say.

Both Stephenson and Mills remarked that organizing events that target specific groups can be a great way for climbing gyms to promote diversity and inclusivity. Queer Bloc is an excellent example of a group that’s doing just that for the queer community in Montreal. Co-founded by Rouillard and a friend, Daniel Baylis, the organization hopes to facilitate discussions and create connections through its monthly meet-ups.

“Our events are typically low-key but can be a bit fun with DJ sets, happy hours, and even flash tattoo sessions,” Rouillard told the Daily.

Climbers of colour are also carving out spaces for themselves in a community that has historically been dominated by white athletes. New Jersey-based Tiffany Blount launched Black Girls Boulder in 2020, and Climbers of Color has been active in Washington since 2018. Organizations like ParaCliffHangers and the Canadian Adaptive Climbing Society have also been working to make the sport accessible to people with disabilities.

In addition to holding inclusive climbing events, Stephenson said, it’s important that climbing gyms diversify their hiring practices: “having diverse administration and staff visually indicates that diverse climbers are welcome in the space.”

Rouillard suggested a few other steps climbing gyms can take to make queer climbers feel safe and supported, including: ensuring that any music played is not misogynistic, homophobic, or transphobic; ensuring that washrooms and changing rooms are non-gendered; and including a non-binary option on waivers and membership forms.

If you’re interested in attending queer climbing events and connecting with other queer climbers in Montreal, follow @queer_bloc on Instagram.